As a curious young writer I sometimes catch myself feeling envious of my Freemason friends. I daydream about what it would be like to put on the apron and join them at the Masonic temple, I imagine myself enjoying the camaraderie and benefiting from their social connections. Then I suddenly remember that this will never happen, because I am a practising Catholic.
The relationship between the Catholic Church and Freemasonry is delicate and complicated, but as Freemasonry was (according to tradition) founded in England in 1717, it seems appropriate to discuss the issue in an English newspaper.
In Italy recently the relationship has been the subject of renewed debate. The discussion has made one thing transparently clear: Catholics and Freemasons are likely to remain fierce opponents for a long time yet.
Freemasonry has been repeatedly condemned by the papacy, beginning with the Bull In Eminenti Specula of 1739. The 1917 Code of Canon Law forbade Catholics, under the penalty of excommunication, to enrol in Masonic or other similar associations. The revised Code of 1983 made no specific mention of Freemasonry.
In order to address confusion raised by this omission in the same year the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a clarification. The document, signed by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, said: "The Church's negative judgment in regard to Masonic associations remains unchanged since their principles have always been considered irreconcilable with the doctrine of the Church and therefore membership in them remains forbidden. The faithful who enrol in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion."
So why precisely are Catholics forbidden to join? According to the CDF, because the "principles" of Freemasonry are impossible to reconcile with Church teaching. This verdict calls for an in-depth discussion of the doctrines of Freemasonry, which I don't have space for here. Anyway, this would take us away from what I think is the real point: that the Church and Freemasonry are locked in a power struggle.
In the 18th century new cultural forces embodied by Freemasonry swept across Europe. They wrenched centres of influence away from the Church. Instead of trying to come to an accommodation, the Church condemned and excommunicated those in the vanguard of this revolution. This decision created an unbridgable gulf between the Church and the modem world contructed by the revolutionaries. Ever since, this separation has grown wider and wider.
The antagonism reached its height in the 19th century when Freemasons helped to consign the Papal States to history. Giuseppe Garibaldi — symbol of unification of Italy against Pope Pius IX — was grand master of the Italian Grand Orient. Freemasonry therefore became a potent symbol of modernity in Italy, and across Europe.
The question I find myself asking is: now that the Papal States are no more why are we still making so much fuss about Freemasonry? If the Church was to bury the hatchet with the Masons it would send out a potent message: that being Catholic doesn't mean being opposed to modernity.
On a different note, here is something to rejoice at: last Saturday the most famous Muslim in Italy. Magdi Allam, was received into the Church by Pope Benedict XVI. Will this simple action launch the concerted evangelisation of Muslims in Europe?